Q: How did you come up with the idea for Catkwondo, and did you need to do any research to write the book?
A: The initial spark for Catkwondo came during an evening when my family’s two cats were “tussling,” as we call their daily play-fights, and one of my sons commented that they looked like they were sparring in taekwondo. We all looked at each other and said, “Cat-kwondo! That should be a book!”
My first attempt at writing the story was fun and energetic, but didn’t have enough narrative arc, so I thought back to what I have come to love and appreciate about taekwondo from watching my children, who are now both black belts: the discipline and focus that it takes, the tenets and principles they observe, and the teamwork between everyone in the dojang.
I remembered watching a teenage black belt student notice my oldest son struggling during one particularly difficult board break at a belt testing. She began to call out encouragement and advice, and soon other fellow students joined in. When my son successfully broke the board at last, they were as happy and relieved as he was!
So when I revised the story, I tried to capture that moment of struggle and support when Kitten struggles to break a board.
While I certainly have observed many, many taekwondo classes, tests, and tournaments over the years, I still needed to do a lot of work to make sure the story was accurate.
I think there is a misconception out there that fiction doesn’t require research, but if you’re using factual elements—in this case taekwondo—those need to be well-researched.
I read a lot about taekwondo and how schools other than the one my sons attend progress their students through the various belts, and I did a lot of research to make sure the correct Korean words and spellings were used.
That part was especially difficult, as well as important to get right, so I reached out to several experts who read the book and weighed in on which words and spellings should be used. Creating a book is always a team effort, and that was especially true for Catkwondo!
Q: How much do you think kids need to know about taekwondo to appreciate the book, and what do you hope they take away from it?
A: While kids involved in the sport already will particularly appreciate it, it is my goal and hope that kids who’ve never stepped foot in a dojang will still enjoy the story and take away the understanding of how important perseverance is when learning something new, whether that something is physical like taekwondo or something less-so like writing!
Q: You also have another new book out, On the Go Awesome, focused on transportation. What inspired this book?
A: I love to travel and have always wanted to write a
picture book that featured trains and all of the rhythmic, interesting sounds
you hear while riding on one. But as I worked on a draft, my train story
evolved into a celebration of traveling with family that features a wide variety
Q: What do you think the illustrations, by Erin Hunting and Robert Neubecker respectively, add to the books?
A: Many people are surprised when they learn that with traditionally-published picture books, the author typically doesn’t have much—if any—input into which illustrator is chosen.
I feel incredibly lucky and thankful to have been paired with such talented and creative people for each of my books. Seeing first sketches and then finished art is one of my very favorite parts of the process—it’s so exciting to see how my words are brought to life and made better through art!
Erin Hunting’s work in Catkwondo is so kid-friendly, and I love how she brought Kitten’s world to life. My favorite page is when Kitten is practicing her form in her bedroom and you can see things like a potted succulent, a basketball, and photos on the walls that all add great insight into who this character is.
Robert Neubecker’s art in On the Go Awesome brings so much fun and exuberant energy to the page, which is perfect for a book about vehicles and travel. He included so many delightful details that I find something new every time I read it!
I especially love looking at all the different passengers on the spread with the ship, one of whom is clearly not enjoying the journey!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I tend to be working on a variety of stories at once, all in various stages of the process. While most of these projects are picture books, I’m also finishing up a draft of a contemporary middle grade novel with some fantasy elements. The challenge of writing a novel is both terrifying and exciting!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I love hearing from readers and visiting schools, libraries, and bookstores, albeit virtually right now. Come visit me at my website, www.lislhdbooks.com!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb